Managing the wellbeing of healthcare workers during COVID-19

A new set of wellbeing initiatives developed by St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne (SVHM) are helping staff manage the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 health crisis.

This global pandemic has seen healthcare workers thrust into unchartered territory.

As a result, the peaks and troughs of their COVID-fuelled work environments are adding unforeseen layers of complexity for managing wellbeing including increased levels of anxiety and trauma.

SVHM’s Wellbeing Action Plan – COVID-19 was developed when the virus first hit Australia in March. It was later modified to accommodate the pandemic’s evolving stages.

“It is a living action plan, as, even though the situation in Australia is one of ‘controlled’ pandemic, sporadic outbursts, like the one we are currently experiencing, are expected to continue and a state of readiness is necessary,” says Monita Mascitti-Meuter, Wellbeing Program Coordinator at SVHM.  

Riding the waves

When the virus first hit Victoria, SVHM staff were prepared for an overflow of patients. But the wave was smaller than anticipated and the emergency department was quieter than usual.

“The build-up to face a looming disaster, which did not eventuate, left many staff feeling lost, frustrated, disillusioned, reflecting, fatigued and burnt out,” says Jacqui Bloink, Workplace Wellbeing Program Manager.

Staff then had to manage feelings of knowing they would need to be perpetually prepared for a surge, Jacqui adds.

When the second wave hit in July and August, a heightened level of pressure was felt.

“Some (of our) staff likened the effects of riding these waves as living with permanent stress fractures,” Jacqui says.

Through the targeted wellbeing plan, the Hospital has been able to identify these ‘stress fractures’ and manage them quickly, effectively and with care and support.

Making a difference

This latest Wellbeing Action Plan is comprised of three sections – Planning, Active Response and Recovery – which address the psychological phases experienced by health workers in a COVID-19 environment.

“The plan is flexible and scalable so as to capture on-going innovation at St Vincent’s, as well as external resources,” says Monita.

Some of the program strategies that have been particularly successful include regular communication, such as daily huddles, to help staff feel empowered to go about their work and practise with the most up-to-date knowledge. Role modelling of different wellbeing approaches has included a buddy system and end-of-shift debriefing, or ‘Mental Doffing’, which helps to mitigate feeling overwhelmed.

Hotel provision for staff requiring self-isolation; donations to teams in need of extra support; a buddy system for clinical and non-clinical staff; as well as access to mindfulness exercises, well-curated resources and targeted online training were other strategies adopted.

“Irrespective of the size of the COVID wave, managing the wellbeing of hospital staff is key because of the complexity of repercussions the pandemic can have at any time.”

This COVID-specific plan also saw increased STAR (Support Team Action Response) Peer Support offered to provide wellbeing text messages and phone calls to all COVID-positive staff and those in self-isolation, along with weekly Nurse Unit Manager support forums.

“Despite the many challenges and adversities the staff maintain a remarkable sense of collegiality and resilience as they work through the emotional consequences of the pandemic,” Jacqui says.

“They continually express how incredibly well-supported they feel by the organisation to face whatever the shift presents and to collectively lift the extra weight with great skill and capacity.”